Monday, April 4, 2011

Gattaca (1997)

Gattaca (1997)
Directed by: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law

Gattaca has always been an intriguing movie to me.  Although it is set in the future, this movie depicts a future that is entirely achievable.  Never mind the flying cars, the one piece suits, the apes, the robot uprisings, the faster than light speed travel, and the zombie apocalypse; this future is set in stone.  Whether we want to or not, some health and ecological problems of today need to be addressed in the near future.  That’s kind of where the plot of this film fits in.  Imagine a world where automobiles use only electricity, the Earth’s power comes from the Sun, and genetic engineering has been perfected.  These three simple ideas solve some of the largest problems facing our Earth today.  With Automobiles using only electricity, no greenhouse gases would be emitted.  If we could greatly increase the yield from solar panels, we could phase out Coal, Nuclear, and Hydroelectric power.  With genetic engineering we could get rid of unwanted traits, such as baldness, obesity, and even genetic diseases.  However, the film doesn’t raise the largest issue that would oppose genetic engineering; Religion.  Religion would never support advancements of this nature.  This is probably the only fictional part of the movie, because this could only exist in a world in which Religion doesn’t have an enormous grasp over people.  This is something that is so far off, that it may never happen.  So many barriers to the health and ecological problems exist that it’ll be very hard to achieve what this film suggests.  However, don’t let the genetic engineering of the movie lead you away from the central theme.  The film leaves it up to the audience to determine if genetic engineering is morally and scientifically right.  The film opens up to two quotes, both representing the far ends of biases for and against genetic engineering.

“Consider God's handiwork; who can straighten what He hath made crooked?" - Ecclesiastes 7:13
"I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to." -
Willard Gaylin

The first quote comes from the Hebrew Bible and the second comes from a PhD Bioethicist (Bioethics is the study of controversial ethics that deal with advances in biology and medicine).  The two quotes seem like they represent both ends of the debate on whether gene altering is ethical.  However both actually point out that we should alter who we are, because we were made “crooked” and that “mother nature wants us to”.  Vincent (played by Ethan Hawke) is a person that shakes the morality behind gene altering.  He was conceived naturally, so he is labeled in their culture as a “faith-birth”, “de-gene-erate”, or “God-child”.  Vincent narrates near the beginning of the movie that they have discrimination down to a science.  It doesn’t matter how smart he is, what he looks like, how much money he has; the only thing that matters is his DNA.  So we have Religious, Environmental, Discriminatory, and Political themes all wrapped up into the plot of Gattaca.  The first time that I watched the movie, I didn’t even think about any of these issues, because the movie doesn’t focus on these issues.  It focuses on how Vincent gets around the discrimination and lives his dream.

Perhaps the most peculiar vision behind this movie is that the world portrayed in this film was suggested when global warming wasn’t recognized as much as a global threat as it is today.  Because the movie was made in 1997, we can assume that the director or writers weren’t inspired from an Al Gore book/film or had gone to a UN Summit Meeting on the crisis of our environment.  No, these people may have used their own judgment to picture the world of Gattaca.  To put this peculiarity into perspective, here are some facts about the year 1997 that may or may not have a connection to the film:
1.)    The cost of gas was around $1.10 a gallon
2.)    Scientists announce that an adult sheep named Dolly had been successfully cloned, and was born in July 1996.
3.)    Diana, Princess of Wales, is taken to hospital after a car accident in Paris. She is pronounced dead at 04:00 a.m.
4.)    NASA launches the Cassini-Huygens probe to Saturn.
5.)    The Toyota Prius, the first hybrid vehicle to go into full production, is unveiled in Japan in October, and goes on sale in Japan in December.
6.)    NASA's Pathfinder space probe lands on the surface of Mars.
7.)    Bloomsbury Publishing publishes J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone for us) in London.
This year was not a huge year for the global warming or energy issues, so it’s pretty interesting that this movie deals with these issues.  It’s also interesting that cloning (mans first step towards genetic alteration) and the Toyota Hybrid were announced the same year that this particular film came out.

The movie’s plot show’s Vincent’s struggle to be Jerome Morrow, a man whose identity he needs in order to live the life that he wants.  The real Jerome (played by Jude Law), is an eccentric immoralist that because of an accident is willing to give up his life for someone else.  The film really builds the relationship that Vincent and Jerome share.  The plot begins and ends with Vincent narrating, and it gives the film the sense of a story being told to us, rather than him saying, “Hey, I was born.  It was hard, here’s how it began…”  The plot has four overlying themes that come together in the end to give the movie its great ending.  The first theme is that Vincent has a heart disease, and was told that he would die somewhere in his thirties.  The only parts of the plot that we see this affecting him is whenever he works out.  This will eventually kill him, and he even hints that he may not make it back during his year long trip to work near Jupiter.   The second theme is that Vincent takes on the life of Jerome and must keep this a secret.  Now I could go into everything he does in order to keep this a secret, but that is a huge part of the plot, so I will let you enjoy that.  The third theme is the murder of the mission director and the eventual discovery of Vincent’s eyelash near the scene of the crime.  Enter the “antagonist” and problem of the movie.  The last theme is the love story between Vincent and Irene (played by Uma Thurman).  Vincent puts it best when he says,
“For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess: I’m suddenly having a hard time leaving it.  Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star.  Maybe I’m not leaving … maybe I’m going home.”
The funny part about the movies love story is that Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke became a couple during the filming of this movie and actually got married (now divorced).

Another part of the film that intrigued me was the soundtrack.  The film was scored by Michael Nyman, and I really enjoyed his particular composing to this film.  Although he is not seen as one of the major classical composers for film (John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, etc.), he does a wonderful job with this film.  The main theme that can be heard in the end fits the scene really well.  Although a bit heavy on the violin, his music has a tone like clockwork.  What I mean by that is that every note seems to begin and end at exactly the moment that they were meant to.  This reminded me of the movie in that the “Valids” were designed; however Vincent was really the one that was meant to be.

All in all, a great movie that takes a more philosophical approach to science fiction rather than the action packed approach.  I would head over and read the trivia section on to read some interesting facts about the movie.  For those who are Chemistry Nerds like me and are interested in what the structure of GATTACA looks like, here it is:

Gattaca is a pretty interesting movie to say the least.  This is another example of a movie that I like to watch every couple of months because the actors actually did a great job in the film.  Not just the protagonists of the film, either.  Everyone who had a part performed really well.  From Gore Vidal’s character of the director; to even the doctor that let Vincent get on the shuttle when he knew that he was an invalid (played by Xander Berkeley).  I also enjoyed Alan Arkin’s character of Detective Hugo.  He wasn’t really known until he won the academy award in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), but I thought that he played a great role in this movie as well.  I believe that his character played a “invalid” detective that got his position by his skill and not his genes.  Anton, Vincent’s brother, is his boss probably only because he is a “valid”.  Hugo is really the only one who plays the part of the detective.  Anton is just obsessed with finding his brother just so he can reclaim his superior title that Vincent took away from him when they were younger.

A Message for non-Fans:
I’ve read that a lot of you don’t like it because of the inconsistencies that the movie has.  I should remind you that sci-fi movies in the Nineties didn’t really focus too much on inconsistencies as much as they do today, so consider that before having any skepticism.  I’d also like to address some points that another author brought up that were his/her top inconsistencies of the film:
  • The discrimination is de facto.  It's explicitly stated that there is no law against being an "In-valid" (a term breathtaking in its awkwardness and completely tone-deaf).  So why does everyone act like it is?  If there is no law against being In-Valid, why don't the In-Valids protest their condition?  It's set in the future, after all.  Did all records of the civil rights movement mysteriously vanish?
This point suggests that there are a ton of invalids walking around, and that most of them are unhappy with what they do.  The author does not think that maybe the invalids are happy that people who were genetically engineered to be “perfect” are talking on the more prestigious jobs.  To bring up the point that “it’s set in the future after all” is stating that we know how humans will act in the future.
  • The Gattaca Corporation is right not to give Vincent a job.  He has a heart condition.  Not just a potential heart condition; something that will show up if checked (see the scene on the treadmill).  Space exploration is stressful and that last place you want someone to get a heart attack is a few thousand miles from Earth.  Why is it wrong to protect Vincent from that?  Ultimately, not wanting Vincent to be working there is perfectly reasonable.  This is by far the most blatant example of how little thought was put into the scenario.
“Everyone knows space exploration is super stressful!”  This is probably the one point that makes the most sense, but remember that Vincent is tricking the Corporation.  They do not know that he is an invalid, just as they don’t know that he has a heart condition.  If this movie was set in present day times, then for sure, we would want to protect an astronaut from having a heart attack in Space.  But again, this is set in the future, and is about one man’s dream to get away from his genetic disability.   So by that fact, this can’t be the most blatant example of “little thought”.
  • Everyone spends time and effort supporting a system they don't believe in.  The most obvious case is the doctor, who knows Vincent is an In-Valid, but keeps his secret.  So why does he go along with the system?  More importantly, why doesn't he tell Vincent he knows earlier?  If he sympathizes, then wouldn't he tell Vincent he does, just in case Vincent needs help? And the end makes it clear that no one is particularly upset that Vincent fooled the system; they just shrug it off.  But if it's not that important to them, why do they accept it? (Consider what would happen in the segregated south if a Black man was discovered to be passing for white.)
I’m not sure whether the author actually watched the movie intently, because this is explained in the movie.  He tells Vincent about how his son is a fan of him.  Then the doctor goes on to say that his son isn’t all that they promised, which means that his son is most likely like Vincent.  Therefore he sympathizes with Vincent, and that’s why he lets him go.  He doesn’t find out until the end of the movie as well, so it’s not like he knew the whole time.  This point makes way too many assumptions.
  • The constant genetic testing is pointless and expensive.  Why does anyone bother?  It would make sense under the system to check when hiring someone, but every day?  Every time someone enters the building?  It takes time and costs money to make genetic tests; why bother?  Because the guy who was OK yesterday might change his genes today? Spot checks, maybe, but checking every person every single day?  How many people are you tying up to do all this testing?  How much money do you tie up in equipment to do the testing?  How often are you going to find anything from it?  And, finally, what does it matter if you do, since there is no explicit ban on In-Valids? 
This movie takes place in the future, not present day.  They are a corporation and can do whatever they please.  Again, the author makes too many assumptions.  For all we know the Gattaca program is very exclusive and they want to make sure no one steals intellectual material about their missions.
  • Genetics can only do so much. Everyone seems surprised that the head of Gattaca could commit murder.  But there is no "murder" gene.  Similarly, there is no gene that makes you a better worker.  All you can test for is physical traits.  And Vincent fails on that count due to his bad heart.
Don’t really understand the author’s point.  Is he saying that the movie has an inconsistency because it has genetics in it?  People were surprised that he killed someone, for that very reason.  He tries to cover his tracks by saying he doesn’t have “a mean bone in his body.”  Again, this movie takes place in the future, for all we know, they found an anger/murder gene.
  • Why go through all that rigmarole to make yourself a Valid? Vincent has to keep track of every piece of stray skin, bring sacks of urine and blood and spend hours trying to "prove" he was Valid.  Why do it?  Couldn't someone hack into the database and change Vincent's records?  Better yet, pay someone who works in the records department to make the change (you can bet there would be people who'd do it).  Viola -- no need to go to all that trouble.  No need to worry.  Oh, yeah, that heart condition.
This isn’t a documentary; it doesn’t take place in the present.  This argument is like someone saying that a plot is wrong because it’s not the easiest thing to do.  Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of having a plot?  No more needs to be said.
  • Huh? There are many little things that just don't work.  For instance, there are records that have everyone's genetic profile.  Yet they leave out important facts like someone is paralyzed in a car accident.  Why?  How was that little detail missed?
Agreed.  The one assumption that is correct.  They are also missing the fact that Jerome has a British accent.  But it doesn’t make the movie unbearable.
I hope this cover’s most points that skeptics have about the film.  If not, I’d be happy to address more.

A Message for Fans:
Watch the movie one more time, and let me know your opinion on the amount of algae in the lake, as well as the style that the future is depicted in.  It seems to be very retro.  Also let me know if you liked the soundtrack as well.

Potential topics to discuss:
Philosophy in Science Fiction
Actors/Actresses in this film
Setting of this future